Classical Drama and Theatre
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SECTION 3: ANCIENT GREEK COMEDY
Chapter 10: Later Greek Comedy
I. Drama in the Post-Classical Greek World and the Hellenistic Age
During the Classical Age, Greece was cast into a new and different—and not necessarily wiser or more liveable—world. Although Athens had suffered an ignominious defeat and the loss of the Delian League at the end of Peloponnesian War, it quickly recovered both its autonomy and prestige, due less to anything the Athenians did and more because the victorious Spartans almost immediately proved incompetent at managing international affairs. Their regimented way of life proved poor soil in which to raise diplomats and, if only by comparison, Athens began to look good in its neighbors' eyes.
Nor was Greece polarized around Sparta and Athens any longer, as the Thebans returned to the national scene. After nearly a century, the stigma of their ancestors having "medized" during the Second Persian War (i.e. having voluntarily capitulated to Xerxes and the invading "Medes") finally started to heal over. The re-emergence of Thebes precipitated a three-way tug-of-war for power, resulting in smoldering civil strife which erupted only intermittently into full-scale military conflict. But when conflict broke out, it had enough force to keep any of the Greek players from expanding or even maintaining their interests abroad. The bright light of Hellenic—and particularly classical Athenian—political and military hegemony was flickering and fading fast.
The Greeks' cultural and commercial affairs, however, were a very different matter. These thrived internationally, and Greek influence began to spread all around the Mediterranean. While home was rarely a happy place—especially after Philip II of Macedon defeated the combined forces of the Greeks at the Battle of Chaeronea in 338 BCE—a new world and world-order dawned, which brought with them many opportunities for economic benefit. Still, no matter how rich one is or how hospitable the hostile forces, it's never a good day when outsiders march in and take over one's land.
In the wake of Alexander's conquests rose his successor generals, the so-called diadochoi who were, in reality, little more than a succession of petty tyrants. Their despotism proved a deathblow to the independent polis, the civic monument that had in many ways defined the Classical Age. Its demise was a tragedy even more devastating than the dissolution of Athenian democracy.
And as being an Athenian, or a Spartan, or even a Theban began to matter less and less—and no one seemed able to make foreigners understand why that was a bad thing—the whole ancient world including Greece was turning into a cosmopolis engaged in trade and industry, and reciprocal conquest and domination. A cartel of international business interests that advertised their power through the show of military prowess was, in fact, the real power behind every throne, if anything can be said to have been. The global situation had come to resemble a "rat race" in which a succession of increasingly vicious, immoral and greedy rodents entered and exited the scene so fast no one could foresee where it was heading.
Amidst all this upheaval and the inevitable vicissitudes of life in a post-modern world, survival itself became a very difficult endeavor, entailing saving one's own job and family from the potentially crushing chaos of perfidious fortune. True, a Greek could make quite a lot of money, especially after Alexander's exploits which had opened up most of the East to western exploitation—entrepreneurs from all over the known world sold their goods in the markets of Syria and many a Greek in search of a livelihood fought as a mercenary in the army of some oriental despot—but to bring your winnings home to Greek soil, to live long enough to enjoy the fruits of foreign adventure, to return like Odysseus and not Agamemnon, that was the real challenge.
Running the gauntlet of foreign customs and pirate kings who ruled tiny principalities and called themselves "gods" was a matter of foolhardy daring, in essence, to put oneself into the hands of dumb luck. Greece and its traditions, language and literature—the very heart of Greek culture—everything that mattered about being a proud Athenian seemed diminished in this ever-expanding world. Everything did, in fact, look small in such an immense arena, all except the profits one could make if one were senseless enough to head into the rising sun and lucky enough ever to be seen again on Greek soil.
And almost the worst part about it all was the readiness of foreigners to absorb Greek culture. Classical texts, the dramas especially, played astonishingly well abroad, very flattering really, but it meant that barbarians started learning the Greek language. When they ventured to speak that most fundamental tool of Greek culture, the honeyed gift that once had lilted over the lips of Homer, Sappho and Aeschylus, the tongue was contorted in their guttural gullets, mouths ill-tuned to the delicate rhythms and intricate streams down which epic, lyric and tragedy had once flowed. In a barbarian's mouth, to be frank, the language was no longer Greek but a bastardized, international knock-off of the real thing, or, in the Greeks' own word, koine meaning "common (speech)." A better translation might be "vulgar."
This koine was a parlance with far-ranging impact but little of the complex nuance on which the best of Greek literature depended, and thus the final battleground was set. Outlanders had won the war over Greece itself some time ago. Foreign dictators, after all, owned the land, and everyone knew there was going to be no glorious Persian War this time, no Hellenic alliance of city-states that would send this batch of invaders packing. The only real issue left to resolve was who would control Greek culture. And that fight was not going well for the Greeks, either. To lose this battle would have amounted to utter humiliation and disgrace, total and ignominious defeat—if not for all the money they were making, of course.
And to make matters worse, as the Greek world began moving to the beat of changing times, the Olympian religion itself started to falter. Any level-headed person caught in the revolutions engulfing these times could see that the Greek gods were not in charge—or if they were, they were not looking out for Greece, which made them either not gods or not Greek—thus, new deities started to flood their temple squares. Isis, for example, was imported from Egypt by sailors whose fortunes she was said to govern. From the east, Mesopotamian astrology appealed to those who sought their destiny in the stars, or planets, or anywhere but earth and their own choices and actions.
Others parted company with heaven altogether and sought solace in logic-based philosophies, do-it-yourself cosmologies that taught how best to deal with life's mundane miseries, for a fee naturally—what doesn't cost in a post-classical world?—so, for instance, Stoicism preached an unemotional attitude to life, an "if-I-don't-care-about-it-it-can't-hurt-me" answer to the tribulations of existence. Epicureans, on the other hand, advocated withdrawal from the anxieties of life, harboring the notion that one should retreat inside garden walls and forget the cold, harsh world outside—which, as it happens, was neither cold nor harsh in Epicurus' neighborhood—and with this, philosophy became a pain-pill, a doctor's daily injection of intellectual morphine (click here for more on later Greek philosophy).
In such a cultural climate, dramas delivering serious messages about local political issues, like Aristophanes' or Eupolis' comedies, were incompatible with modern living, as were tragedies set in a remote and by now clearly fictitious vision of some heroic, Homeric past. Tragedy, as a result, declined precipitously. For whatever reason—and however the cards are stacked, it was at heart the failure of Euripides' and Sophocles' heirs—tragic drama staggered, collapsed and moldered as a mainstream art form, evolving eventually into an antiquarian exercise, yet another avenue of escape that some pursued.
From the other side of the stage, however, comedy survived, even thrived, against all odds, but only by re-inventing itself most dramatically. No longer able to depend on the polis for its vitality—the undoing of the independent city-state was hardly something to joke about—Greek comic drama turned into "New Comedy," basing its humor on the tumultuous lives of ordinary people, though usually those considerably richer than ordinary people. Still, in spite of a frightfully protean world, an age when so many other arts were in turmoil and more than one fell into obsolescence and obscurity, comedy forged on to great success, a tribute to the genius of post-classical comic poets.
II. Middle Comedy
The radical changes in social and political conditions which rained down on Greece in the 300's BCE led to equally elemental changes in theatre. As tragedy slowly faded from public attention, revivals of "old" tragedies—meaning classical fifth-century plays by Euripides and Sophocles primarily—began to play a more central role in Greek theatre. To put it ecologically, this left a gap in the "entertainment niche," which in turn opened the possibility for a new genre to rise.
Mime was one contender for the public's attention in that open niche, though it didn't achieve supremacy, at least not at first (see Chapter 11). Its bawdy, low-brow nature looked, no doubt, simplistic to audiences nursed on the vigorous intellectualism of the arts in the Classical Age. At the same time, however, as we noted above, the precocious heckling of Old Comedy fared little better. As long as it had rested in the hands of masters like Aristophanes or Eupolis and played before a restless, idealistic democracy, it had found a way to address complex and compelling issues, but that, as it turned out, was not always the case. As tyranny supplanted freedom, as pragmatism displaced the search for answers to the big questions in life, as greed won over patriotism, the playwrights of comedy had to adapt their art to the world around them. Besides, the humor-generating formula of the "great idea" that had driven so many of Aristophanes' plots —Lysistrata's sex strike, Euripides infiltrating an all-female festival —must have seemed not particularly funny to a society in real need of real salvation.
What theatre was starving for was something novel and original, but the recipe for survival was not immediately forthcoming. There was still much middle ground to cross. Social and political issues had to settle into some sort of scheme before drama could reflect the "new" order. An otherwise unknown historian named Platonius preserves one explanation for the social causes underlying the changes in post-classical drama:
. . . later . . . as power fell from the people's hands into those of certain individuals few in number and oligarchies were prevalent, the poets became afraid. It was not possible to ridicule anyone openly when those who were ridiculed would sue poets in court . . . and because of this they became more hesitant to ridicule and producers were not to be found. And no longer were the Athenians eager to appoint producers who would pay the expenses for choruses. For example, Aristophanes brought out Aeolosicon which does not have choruses. Since there were no producers appointed or meals provided for the chorus, comedy was gradually deprived of its chorus songs, and the type of subjects it dealt with was changed. For in Old Comedy the object ridiculed was the demagogues and jurors and generals, but Aristophanes gave up his customary ridicule out of great fear, and criticized Aeolus, that drama by the tragedians, as being bad. Aristophanes' Aeolosicon is just like Middle Comedy, and so is Cratinus' Odysseuses and many of the older comedies which do not have choruses and parabaseis.
Without a single complete Greek play—tragedy or comedy—surviving between Aristophanes' last (388 BCE) and Menander's first (316 BCE), there is little way for us to gauge the validity of Platonius' conclusions or measure the evolution of what he calls Middle Comedy. (note)
Because a lack of data makes it impossible at this remove to track how Greek drama developed over the course of the fourth century BCE, historians are left with no other option than to skip ahead to its outcome and try as best we can to suppose what must have happened in between. And we are not left completely without resources, either. To wit, the history—both political and intellectual—of this age hints at some of the processes directing this evolution.
For example, it is commonly supposed that New Comedy, the ultimate product that emerged from the evolution of comic drama during the early post-classical period, arose somehow out of the many new types of philosophy that cropped up around this time, especially ethical studies such as those espoused by Theophrastus (ca. 370-286 BCE). His work, The Characters, centers on the description of personality-types, mostly unpleasant ones:
The Garrulous Man: Garrulity is the delivery of words which are irrelevant, long and not thought out ahead of time. The garrulous man is the sort of person who will sit down next to someone he doesn't know, and start talking first about his wife, how wonderful she is, and then narrate in full the dream he had last night, and then tell what he had for dinner course by course. Now that he's warmed up, he'll say that we're not the men we used to be in the good old days and can you believe the price of wheat in the market and the whole city is full of foreigners and it's a good thing we can go to sea now that it's late March and we could sure use some more rain from Zeus Almighty and next year I'll plant this and that and it's hard to make ends meet and did you believe the parade at the Mysteries and have you ever counted the number of pillars in the Odeion and I barfed yesterday and what day is it today and did you know that New Year's comes on January first and midsummer is in July.
The Disgusting Man: Disgustingness is openly and shamefully ridiculous behavior. The disgusting man is the sort of man who flashes in front of married women and in the theater applauds when everyone else is silent and boos the actors everybody else loves, and when the theater is silent, he lifts his head up and belches so everyone turns around and looks at him. He calls by name people he doesn't know, and if anyone is in a hurry, he tells them to slow down and wait for him . . .
From the comical nature of these analyses of "character," it is often assumed that Theophrastus' brand of philosophy stimulated the character-driven drama that propels most New Comedies. Certainly, grumpy old men, love-sick youths, crafty slaves and their ilk—the typical denizens of later Greek comedy, especially Menander's—are part and parcel of Theophrastus' "psychological" way of reflecting on human life.
Of course, the chronology of all this is fuzzy, as is so often the case in ancient studies, and therefore the reverse is also possible. In other words, dramatic comedy may have fostered Theophrastus' philosophy of "character," since we simply do not know which preceded which. If anything, the dating argues for theatre's primacy, since several comic character-types—in particular, the braggart, the coward, the managing slave, and so on—are visible in theatre as early as the fifth century, well before Theophrastus' lifetime.
Moreover, the sense of unchanging personality type is a natural extension of classical theatre, where masks "freeze" a dramatic character in one expression and, thus, one emotional mode. As a result, angry old men will always look old and angry on stage when actors wear masks depicting them that way. It's not much of a leap to assert, then, that the emotions so easily read in their frozen expressions are emblazoned with equal rigidity on their minds as well. (note)
This, then, leaves open the question of where and how personality-centered comedy arose. The truth is that it goes back as far as can be seen in Greek literature. Homer includes typical comic characters, such as the abusive misanthrope (Thersites) and the scheming wife (Hera). For us, however, the issue revolves not around these characters' ultimate origin, but when they first entered the stage and who was responsible for giving them a dominant role in theatre. While Aristophanes and his contemporaries almost certainly recognized and played on stereotypical characters, Old Comedy did not rely upon them as a driving force. Ideas, not characters, ruled comedy in the Classical Age.
B. The Nature of Middle Comedy
The change from idea-driven to character-driven comic drama must have transpired at some point during the long and murky medieval age known now as Middle Comedy that spans most of the fourth century BCE. It would be helpful, then, to review plays from this period but since no complete play survives—only titles and fragments—we are left mostly in the dark. To judge from what pitiful shards exist, it is clear no single type of comedy defined this age. In some ways, the evidence suggests Middle Comedy looked back to its forebears in the Classical Age. For instance, current politicians and well-known figures were pilloried, just like in Old Comedy, but probably not as directly, centrally or vigorously as Aristophanes and Cratinus had done.
If, however, any type of drama predominated in Middle Comedy, it was the mockery of classical myth and tragedy—particularly Euripides—another sort of backwards glance. But in spoofing Euripides, Middle Comedy playwrights were, in fact, not just ridiculing him but also reappropriating his plots, characters and dramatic dynamic for their own purposes, a grand display of flattery if ever there was. Indeed, Euripides' influence on later Greek comedy is arguably the greatest of all fifth-century dramatists, even Aristophanes'.
Other notable trends in Middle Comedy are more forward-looking. For instance, in Aristophanes' last two extant plays, the role of the chorus is severely diminished, which is in line with a general pattern of evolution across the century. By Menander's day, in fact, the chorus had declined so far that choral odes were completely disconnected from the main play, which means that at some point during the evolution of Middle Comedy they must have fallen entirely out of the purview of playwrights who stopped composing songs altogether. Nevertheless, Greek drama still retained choral odes, just not new ones composed specifically for a play's debut.
Choristers, instead, sang embolima ("inserted [songs]," literally "things thrown in"). A "throw-in" is Aristotle's way of referring to a song not composed for a particular drama but imported into it from other sources. These embolima were ultimately noted in the text with a perfunctory designation, "chorou," Greek for "the chorus' (song)." (note) When later the custom arose of inserting these at four intervals in the play, a tradition was born that plays should consist of five discrete acts, the so-called five-act rule seen in not only Greek New Comedy but also later Roman tragedy, and even as late as French classical drama in the modern age. (note)
While this signals to some the demise of the chorus as an integral feature of drama, it is wise not to assume too much here. If Aristotle appears to deprecate these embolima, it does not mean they had no dramatic value whatsoever or no affiliation with the play being presented on stage. Embolima could always have had a thematic or analogical tie to the main storyline of the drama. Besides, the fact that music and dance maintained their presence on the post-classical Greek stage, even after being dissociated from the play itself, argues strongly that the Greek audience still wished to see choreographed songs on stage. Perhaps, it constituted an advantage to post-classical Greek dramatists, like many of their modern counterparts, that they no longer had to be musicians and lyricists as well as poets and dialogue-makers. That surely opened up playwriting as a career to a wider range of talent. The long and short of it is, the evolution of Middle Comedy makes it clear that the Greeks were well on the way to inventing the "variety hour."
Along with "connected" choruses out went the parabasis, too, the Old Comedy playwright's opportunity to address his audience directly and comment on current events and modern life. In tune with the changing times, satirical elements were, in general, downplayed, as were the crudities and raw humor so prevalent in Aristophanes' day. And so among other casualties, the phallus sang its schwanz song.
Instead, the prominence these elements had once played in Greek comedy was now handed over to a melange of characters based on dramatic stereotypes: the love-sick young man, the clever slave, the greedy prostitute, the braggart soldier, the miserly old man, the talkative cook, the scheming pimp, and all the rest "here on Gilligan's Island." How, when and by whom these types were introduced to the comic stage is a question we cannot answer satisfactorily given the evidence at hand, but even though fragmentary, the data leave behind enticing hints.
One of the playwrights who the evidence suggests was instrumental in this transition was Alexis of Thurii, the greatest exponent of comic drama during the Middle Comedy period. While no play of his survives complete, one hundred and forty titles and over three hundred fragments of his comedies attest to both his popularity and longevity as an artist. (note) The evidence hints at his use of intrigue and deception in his plays—both are well-known features of New Comedy—and he was probably involved in their integration into drama one way or another. Thus, though a pivotal figure in the history of theatre, Alexis' image is little more than a tantalizing silhouette hanging between the portraits of Aristophanes and Menander.
It has been surmised, for instance, that his play Parasitos ("The Parasite") contained the prototype of what would become one of the most popular characters in New Comedy, the parasite. (note) In origin, a priest's helper who sat beside him at meals and assisted in the administration of a sacred banquet, the parasite turned under Alexis' guidance into a kiss-up and hanger-on, the companion of rich people who feed him in return for amusement and flattery. Thus, if not the founder of New Comedy itself, Alexis appears to have crafted one of the most prominent and successful characters in its portfolio.
It is all the more tragic, then, that none of this dramatist's plays survives. Though it has been suggested that the Roman comic playwright Plautus adapted his comedy The Little Carthaginian (Poenulus) from an original by Alexis, such speculation only opens a rat's nest of further questions about the relationship between Greek originals and Roman adaptations. Still, even if Alexis' history is lost in this dark age of comedy, it is evident his shadow was, in more ways than one, a long one.
Finally—and it is perhaps the most important thing to note about this period of theatre history—of the over fifty Middle Comedy playwrights whose names are cited in our sources, quite a few were not native-born Athenians. The cosmopolitan life of post-classical Greece had clearly begun to make an impact on Greek society by then, and the arts naturally followed in tow. That is, as the fourth century BCE came to a close, the stage door of the Theatre of Dionysus had admitted a pool of talent imported from far beyond the immediate vicinity of Attica. The skene was now as much a cosmopolis as the theatron, just like Athens itself and the rest of the Hellenic world.
III. New Comedy
In the 320's BCE, the ravages that had followed in the wake of Alexander's conquests opened the door even wider for the revolution in lifestyle already underway. So, it comes as no surprise that in the Hellenistic Age there developed a new type of theatre, engineering a change that would forever alter the gaze on comedy's mask. The focus of drama shifted to the fears and foibles of average—and by that, read "richer than average"—people in Athens, in particular, their struggles to keep family and fortune alive. In the process of this evolution, later Greek comedy created a vision of life very different from that of Old Comedy.
This "New Comedy" came to depend not on the mad, ebullient hopes of renegade reformers like Aristophanes' Dicaeopolis or Lysistrata, dramatis personae consumed with some great notion about how to cure society's ills, but relied instead on the fortuitous favors of a hostile world run on luck and money. Indeed, coincidence dominates New Comedy, but, one should note, only slightly more than it does the real world. Unlike its real-life counterpart, however, this genus of fortune is kind, clear-sighted and moral. Long-lost children end up living next-door to their grieving parents, young men compromise women who seem to be prostitutes but fortuitously turn out to be marriageable maidens in love with their attacker, and gentile courtesans welcome home nubile virgin sisters to the lusty arms of well-meaning and well-endowed Athenian bachelors. It is as if the world were made of nothing but Euripidean rescue-plays.
The message of New Comedy seems to be that Fate will in time take care of the beleaguered, if only they're patient and await salvation. Gods, if they cameo at all on the stage of New Comedy, are less likely to hail from the traditional Olympian caucus than the halls of academe where pseudo-scientific deities like Philemon's "Air" or Menander's "Ignorance" rule. To wit, a goddess named Misapprehension delivers the prologue of Menander's Perikeiromene ("The Shorn Girl" or "The Rape of the Locks"). It makes sense that personified abstractions would rule a philosophical era like the Hellenistic Age. Thus, no longer do gods in the traditional sense bring salvation, but it is the consideration of stars that redeems the suffering of those who sit at home and watch and hope and reason.
As a result, the post-classical theatre was both a grim reflection of the darkling world around it and at the same time a haven from the storm outside—or, at least, a brief respite from glowering reality. An accurate but never too detailed picture of the world it inhabited, New Comedy eventually became a way of life unto itself, to the point that one ancient critic asked about Menander, the greatest of New Comedy poets: "Menander or Life? Which imitated which?" (note)
Whatever the "Man" answer to this Sphinx's enigma, comedy evolved into one of the driving forces of later Greek society, especially after Alexander's devastations. For all the attention paid to drama in the fifth-century BCE with its three famous tragic playwrights, the succeeding centuries were the real classical age of theatre, at least to judge from the extent and intensity of interest in theatre across the ever-spreading, ever more diffuse Greek world.
As such, the precepts of Greek theatre, such as the three-actor and five-act "rules," came to be well-known far outside Athens. Dramatists far and wide played intelligently with these conventions and with traditional Greek character-types, to the point that only one of the consummate masters of New Comedy was an Athenian by birth, Menander. His greatest rival, Philemon (ca. 368-267 BCE), a close contemporary of Alexis, hailed from the Greek world outside Athens, as did his slightly younger comrade Diphilus (ca. 360-290 BCE) who was born in Asia Minor—not that either lived as an adult anywhere but Athens which was still the magnet that attracted dramatic talent from all quarters—the point is, neither was a native-born Athenian. The trio of Menander, Diphilus and Philemon became the most famous playwrights of Greek New Comedy, a post-classical comic triad comparable to the tragic trope of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides.
Like Euripides, however, Menander eventually emerged triumphant from that threesome—he was later dubbed the "Star of New Comedy"—yet he never knew that victory since it came only after death. Philemon, we are told, during their lifetime won more first-place awards than Menander at the Lenaea and the City Dionysia. It would be lovely, then, to compare for ourselves the quality of their handicraft but we cannot, because only a handful of Menander's and none of Philemon's comedies survive, at least in Greek. (note) To judge from what little remains of the original texts, Philemon seems to have dwelt at some length on philosophical issues that happened to be currently in vogue, which would go some distance to explaining his popularity in his day and the subsequent loss of interest in his drama once those issues had passed from immediate public attention.
Diphilus' comedy is no easier to gauge—as with Philemon, only tattered remnants of his works survive in Greek—even though both Plautus and Terence, Roman comic playwrights living a century or so later, adapted Diphilus' work. (note) If any single thing stands out as characteristic of Diphilean comedy in both the vestiges of his comedies in Greek and their later Roman adaptations, it is a flair for broad comedy and farcical violence in keeping with Aristophanes' love of strong dramatic effects on stage. Curiously, then, if anyone on the post-classical Athenian stage was Aristophanes' immediate heir, it was not his native countryman Menander but Diphilus who hailed from the Greek city of Sinope on the southern coast of the Black Sea.
[Click here for a brief overview of Menander's drama in the Cambridge History of Classical Literature (pdf file). The material in the this article will NOT be used on the Quizzes or Tests in this class. I include it only for your edification and enjoyment.]
In any case, Menander became not only one of the greatest playwrights of all antiquity, but one of the most lauded Greek writers ever. The critic Aristophanes of Byzantium, for instance, ranked Menander "second only to Homer" among all ancient authors—high praise, to say the least. Though Menander's plays failed to be copied in the Middle Ages for reasons having nothing to do with the quality of his drama, the sands of Egypt have rendered up many Menander papyri, attesting to his enduring popularity even centuries after his lifetime. (note) One all-but-complete drama (Dyscolus, "The Grouch") and several others preserved in various degrees show that Menander continued to be read not only in the great urban centers of Greek and Roman civilization but also on the geographical and cultural periphery of the ancient world. That is, as long as the ancients sought out Greek literature for either wisdom or pleasure, Menander was seen to instruct and delight.
In that and other respects, he was the Shakespeare of sorts for his day. Both dramatists, for instance, brought wit and subtlety to the portrayal of conventional character types as a means of commenting intelligently on human life. Where the Bard created Shylock, Othello and Kate, the Star of New Comedy took the stereotype of the greedy prostitute and turned her into a shrewd but caring madam who hides her good heart behind a façade of fierce commercialism. Similarly, Menander's bragging soldiers dwell not just on how many enemies they have killed but also how well they treat the woman they love—or would, if she gave him half a chance. His managing slaves let people call them clever because they wish they really were. Like in Shakespeare, Menander's characters are both frail and resilient, a meticulous mix of theatre and reality.
As Menander's dramatis personae search for sense amidst the chaos of a confounding world, they find their best path to safety within themselves, inside their own "characters." In the end, despite all their shortcomings and the tragedies they suffer which are all too often from their own making, some kindly deity—usually an idolized ideal like Ignorance or Persuasion—looks down on them, laughs gently and nudges them down some obvious, open path toward salvation. Like only a handful of writers in all of history—the short list of truly great authors like Dante, Vergil and Homer—Menander strikes and holds that most difficult of poses, the delicate arabesque between looking honestly at the horror and heartbreak of humanity and seeing a reason to hope, even chuckle.
As more and more of Menander's work comes to light, his standard modus operandi becomes clearer. He regularly played on his audience's expectations that certain character-types act in predictable ways. His sons are typically headstrong, their fathers too concerned with money and status, and their servants prone to go off on their own and carouse when they think no one is watching. But Menander also experimented profitably with these stereotypes—and not just by inverting the viewer's conventional perspective of these characters as Sophocles was inclined to do—but by giving the characters themselves a sense that they are "character-types" and are expected to act accordingly. When they naturally resist being hemmed in by others' perceptions of what they will do or think—and who doesn't hate to be labeled?—they take on unexpected and vibrant dimension, appearing as rich and layered humans. It is as if Antigone in the midst of her quarrel with Creon were to say, "Uncle, I'm tired of being so righteously indignant! Aren't we both trying to do what's right? Can't we just talk like people, not Antigone and Creon?"
But such complex drama presupposes the viewers can associate a character with a particular situation or emotional state, that they expect a person on stage to act in certain ways. It helps in making that happen—in fact, it is all but mandatory—to have a body of myth in which specific names are linked to certain acts: Medea to witchcraft, Orestes to matricide, Helen to Paris-bonding. But Menander was not working with Greek myth the way Sophocles and Euripides were. As it turns out, however, he had something nearly as good.
Across the mysterious fourth-century there evolved in Greek comedy a roster of dramatic characters who were associated with fairly predictable activities. What is more important, they were also attached to specific names, in much the same way the mere mention of Odysseus brings to mind notions of deception and intrigue, or Achilles the image of youth and anger. This slate of comic characters and their typical exploits provided Menander with a "mythology" much like the tragedians had, from which he could play with or against the audience's expectations and create dramatic tension.
For instance, in even what little remains of Menander's comedy, the character-name Moschion ("Bull-Calf") is attached at least seven times to a particular kind of character: a hot-blooded youth who is often responsible for compromising and impregnating a young woman, often forcibly. (note) Another recurrent type associated with a particular name is Demeas ("People"), invariably an irascible old man who disapproves of irresponsible adolescents like Moschion, even though they are often close relatives. Smikrines ("Small") is another such character, also aged but more miserly in disposition than Demeas. Menander repeatedly sets him at odds with yet another habitué of Menandrean comedy, a slave named Syros ("Syrian") who serves as a household butler and often knows what's going on at home better than anyone including his master. It is the glory of Menander that he took what, no doubt, started out as flat comic caricatures and molded these cartoons into subtly realistic stage personas whose geniality comments brilliantly on the human condition, in particular the ecstasy and toils of love.
There is, in fact, no known play of Menander's that does not deal with eros ("love") in some respect. Though it may seem trite to us, the argument that seems to have pervaded his corpus of drama—that fathers ought to let their children pick a mate instead being married off against their will—was quite revolutionary in Menander's day and bespeaks his gentle compassion for all ages and aspects of life. Thus, both his characters and themes are universal, which surely accounts, at least in part, for his long-lasting fame.
There is no better example of this than Menander's Samia ("The Woman from Samos"). In this play, the ever-excitable Moschion has impregnated an innocent young woman who lives next-door and she has given him a child. Though neither his father (by adoption) Demeas nor the young woman's father Niceratos know about the baby because it was born while they were abroad on a business trip together, they have arranged for Moschion and the young woman to marry. So, while no one in the play as yet knows it, the drama contains within itself an easy resolution—the young parents are destined to be married—which should work itself out readily when the fathers return home.
But easy ways are rarely human ways—and thus they win no part in a Menandrean comedy—because in both life and Menander, "character" not only provides but also impedes the easy resolution of our troubles. That is, who we are all too often forestalls and simultaneously delivers our rescue in the same slow, ineluctable stroke. In this case, Moschion dreads confessing the problem he has engendered, because he is well aware how quick to anger Demeas can be and he fears the consequences of his father's wrath—adoptive relationships are at times more delicate than those between a birth parent and child—or so Moschion lets himself believe.
In reality, Moschion's pride and awareness that his behavior has been irresponsible prevent him from doing what is right and obvious, admitting the full truth. Instead, like so many teenagers then and now, he decides to lie, in this instance, to try and pass the child off as another woman's, his step-father's new mistress Chrysis ("Goldie"), until he can find the right moment and muster up enough courage to tell the old man what really happened. (note) Chrysis agrees, because she has herself just lost a baby in a miscarriage and can easily nurse the child, and as a woman who has often seen eros lead youth astray, she feels compassion for the situation into which the lovable, handsome and headstrong Moschion has gotten himself.
The gods let this feeble plan limp along, far further than it deserves—we earn more of their mercy than we should but who's to say why?—and Moschion hangs onto his story until at last Demeas stumbles upon a reason to suspect far worse of the boy than what he actually did. Overhearing some maids talking, Demeas learns that his beloved ward is the father of the baby and naturally concludes that his woman Chrysis calved her kid by Moschion. How hard is it, after all, to believe that impetuous young men like Moschion are capable of such heinous acts, or that reformed "professionals" of Chrysis' ilk would conspire with them and delude an older lover?
Armed with half the facts and smouldering with that caustic rage symptomatic of senescence, Demeas explodes in indignation, not at his treasured ward however—that Gorgon is too dreadful to look in the face so soon after learning such a terrible truth—but at Chrysis. Women and children make much easier targets for alpha males at moments like this, and so Demeas hauls her out of his house and evicts both her along with her baby. When Moschion hears this, he realizes what he has done and decides finally to tell his father the full truth, on the adolescent logic that it is better to confess late than never and take the rap for the lesser crime he really committed instead of the unconscionable act of infidelity his lie has accidently branded upon him.
So finally in Act Four Moschion does what he should have done several choral interludes earlier—and who of us has not arrived at honesty a few chorou's too late?—he tells Demeas the whole, unwholesome truth. At last wrapping his mind around a sin far less damnable than his initial fear, Demeas calms down and saves the situation by consenting to do what he had decided on long ago, have Moschion marry the girl next door who is, after all, the mother of his child. It is, by all fair standards, a proper wedding and a proper wedding night, just not in that order! And all along, the only real obstacle to this happy ending has been character, that heavenly gift which so often saves us and so often stands between us and the fulfillment of our joy.
And there the play should end, but not in Menander's universe. Things are never so simple as a happy ending, not in a world filled with "characters" like us. In Act Five, the final act of the drama, Moschion's feelings again take center stage, this time hurt and resentful that his adoptive father did not trust him but instead suspected him of a terrible betrayal of trust. So, in spite of the fact Moschion's own actions prove Demeas had good reason to doubt his ward's honor and despite the happy resolution of his love affair, Moschion decides to punish his father by leaving home and joining the army—young people are impulsive, if nothing else—and even if he doesn't really mean to do that, he will at least threaten it, just to show Demeas how badly he was hurt.
Only after Demeas publicly admits he was wrong—he does not, in fact, apologize or actually say "I'm sorry"—and in typical paternal fashion lectures Moschion about pre-judging people, only then does the proud young man at last relent and grasp the happiness life has been trying to hand him for most of this very long drama-day. Stepson and stepfather are reunited, proving that a few minutes of earnest listening at the end of a stressful growth-spurt can go some way toward appeasing a pathological adolescent. In the end, such kindly advice and insight into human life characterizes Menander as one of the most perceptive and thoughtful observers of our species. And while the picture he paints of our kind is hardly flattering, though largely accurate, his drama leaves behind the impression that he—and the gods!—might possibly really, in spite of all our ridiculous flaws, like us.
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